Recent Interesting Science Articles (December 2017)

It’s time to do the last of these entries for the year.

  • The first of these highlight how evolution can work faster than you might expect. This article talks about a couple of cases but I’ll only summarize one of them here. It talks about snail kites a bird living in Florida that eats snails. Since a new type of snail arrived from South America, the birds seem to be evolving larger beaks to make it easier for them to feed on these larger snails. The rate of change is astonishing given that the snails only appeared in 2004.
  • The next article is a follow-up on an earlier announcement of how a team has created a bacterium using a six-letter genetic alphabet instead of the four usual bases. Now they’ve announced that the bacterium can make proteins containing amino acids that are not found in nature, which means that synthetic, tailor-made proteins will soon be available for use for a variety of purposes.
  • Continuing on with my series of pro-dog propaganda, a recent paper claims that while dogs don’t have the largest brains, they have an unusually high number of cortical neurons. Cats seem to have only about half the neurons of dogs and while bears have large brains, they only have around the same number of neurons as cats. The researchers were further surprised to note that domesticated species don’t have fewer neurons than their wild cousins, which was the prevailing assumption before this.
  • Next is a paper that attempts to quantify search costs by calculating how much shoppers lose out on if they accept the first price they see when buying common household goods instead of spending effort to shop around. The paper makes the rather surprising claim that the shopper who shops around gains a price advantage of only around 1% on average. This sounds too low to me but if it’s wrong I’m sure plenty of economists will want to challenge this paper.
  • Finally a paper that seems deliberately timed for the holiday season talks about the size of wine glasses in England over time. Between 1700 to 2017, the average capacity of wine glasses increased seven-fold. Perhaps of greater concern is that the increase was gradual up to the 1990s and then shot up markedly.

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